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Toyota struggles to save breakthrough Prius hybrid

Toyota Prius made its debut in Japan in 1997, it became the world’s first mass-market hybrid electric vehicle and demand exploded when it reached the U.S. three years later. The Prius delivered around 50 miles a gallon and had far more interior space than the typical fuel-saving minicar — all at an affordable price. That made it the best-selling car of any form in California, and the best-selling hybrid vehicle worldwide earlier this decade.

But, as an updated 2019 version of the Prius gets ready to roll into U.S. showrooms, Toyota is facing a difficult situation. Sales of the Prius have been tumbling for several years and were down 23.2 percent for the first 11 months of 2018. The new version delivers updates Toyota hopes will revive the hybrid’s momentum, including a new all-wheel-drive system that could improve its appeal in the Snowbelt. But whether that will be enough is uncertain and company officials admit they’re struggling to figure out what to do next.

There are a variety of reasons why Toyota sold just 3,180 of its Prius hatchbacks in November. Sales of the entire Prius “family,” including a plug-in hybrid version, are running barely a quarter of its peak.

The sharp downturn in fuel prices has scuttled sales of all mileage-minded vehicles. But, as Kaneko alluded to, Toyota has also diluted the appeal of the Prius by now offering hybrid powertrain options on a variety of its more conventional models, such as the Corolla sedan and RAV4 crossover-utility vehicle.

The RAV4 is now Toyota’s best-selling American model, last year nudging past the familiar Camry sedan. And some observers believe the hybrid version of the cross-over utility vehicle could out-sell Prius in 2019. As a result, many are questioning whether Toyota even needs the Prius anymore.

For now, at least, that’s not something Toyota plans to do. And the 2019 model shows that the automaker is looking for ways to revitalize the hybrid hatchback’s appeal. That includes some modest tweaks to interior and exterior design responding to wide criticism of the fourth-generation model after its 2016 model-year debut.

The biggest addition for 2019 is an electric all-wheel-drive system that markedly improves the Prius hatchback’s grip on slick roads, as Toyota set out to demonstrate during its media preview in frigid Kohler.

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